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2017-18 Thunder May Be a Cautionary Tale for Teams Looking to Assemble a Big Three

Image Credit: NBA/YouTube
Image Credit: NBA/YouTube

The recent model for success in the NBA has been to compile elite talent and hope that it all clicks together. Whether it's the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers, the past two NBA champions have boasted so many elite players that many wondered if they would be able to efficiently coexist on the court. For the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder, that coexistence has not been as smooth as it was for the other two aforementioned teams. The Thunder currently sit at seventh in the Eastern Conference with a record of 15-15—not exactly what they were hoping for when they recruited two elite players in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony over the offseason to team up with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.

In recent years, chemistry seems to have taken a clear back seat to talent in the eyes of many NBA general managers. How well a new player will complement an incumbent player doesn't seem to matter nearly as much as how talented the new player is individually. Where an executive would once consider whether a new superstar would mesh with an existing team, executives now appear to be adding whatever talent they can get and letting the players figure out the chemistry aspect on the floor.

This was displayed when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh infamously united in South Beach to turn the Miami Heat into one of the most talked-about teams in NBA history. The potential chemistry between the three players seemed suspect, with James and Wade both being ball-dominant perimeter players and Bosh coming from a Toronto Raptors team where he was the clear-cut go-to guy. But after working out a few kinks, the Heat made it to the Finals in their first year together before earning championship rings each of the following two seasons.

The success of the Heat has led a number of other teams to make moves that may not seem entirely sensible on paper. A couple of moves that come to mind are the Warriors adding Kevin Durant to a team that had already been historically dominant the prior season, and the Houston Rockets adding all-time-great point guard Chris Paul to a backcourt that already featured the ball-dominant James Harden. The Warriors, of course, dominated their way to a title in Durant's first year with the team, while the Rockets are 15-0 with Paul in the lineup this season.

But blindly squeezing as much talent onto the court as possible is not a surefire strategy for success. Look no further than the Thunder, who have three players who will likely find themselves in the Hall of Fame one day along with one of the game's premier centers in Steven Adams. The Thunder currently find themselves with a worse record than the San Antonio Spurs (who have been mostly without superstar Kawhi Leonard so far this season), Portland Trail Blazers, and Denver Nuggets—teams that may not compare to the Thunder in terms of individual talent but have excelled in part due to their chemistry.

The Thunder have plenty of time to figure things out—after all, LeBron's first year with the Heat started with a 9-8 record before the team ended up in the Finals. But so far, the Thunder have been exactly what many feared they would be: a team of ball-dominant stars who don't know how to make an impact when the ball isn't in their hands. In fact, the three Thunder stars are struggling so much that the team leader in win shares is not Westbrook, not George, and not Anthony, but Adams—according to advanced metrics, Steven Adams has been the most valuable contributor for the Oklahoma City Thunder this year.

There's no need to sit here talking about the box score numbers. Each of the Thunder's Big Three has seen his numbers take a hit, particularly in the efficiency categories—but why? It's easy to say that the issue is a lack of chemistry, but let's take a deeper look into the numbers to see how this lack of chemistry is affecting these formerly dominant players.

What immediately stands out is the spike in three-point field goals that the Thunder stars are taking. Prior to this season, 17.8 percent of the shots Anthony took in his career came from beyond the three-point arc—this season, that number is all the way up to 35.8 percent. Despite taking a relatively high number of threes as a one-man wrecking crew last season, Westbrook took just 18.7 percent of his career shot attempts from three entering this season—his 2017-18 number is 26.4 percent. Meanwhile, George has seen his 37.8 percent career mark go all the way up to 43.6 percent so far in the current campaign.

In addition, each of the Big Three has seen a drop in the percentage of shots that come from within three feet of the basket. For Anthony, a career average of 32.1 percent before this season is at 10.8 through 30 games this year; Westbrook has seen the slightest drop of the three, going from 34.6 to 34.1 percent; George has gone from 20.3 to 17.7 percent. For reference, LeBron James, whose 2017-18 three-point percentage would rank best on the Thunder, is taking 42.5 percent of his shots from within three feet of the basket this season.

When an offense is stagnant, it makes it extremely difficult to get easy looks at the basket. Rather than players cutting, setting screens, and freeing up teammates, they are all standing around, which leaves whomever has the ball in his hands with the extremely difficult task of creating his own shot. What this often results in is the ball-handler taking the easy way out—i.e. a jump shot. Fighting around a defender and banging inside to get a shot at the rim is much more difficult than fading away and hoisting up a jumper, which is often the route players take when the team is struggling to create easy looks by moving without the ball.

George understands that this has become an issue, telling Ken Berger of Bleacher Report, “For us three, it's learning to play off the ball and learning to space and do all the little things. We have to learn and try to figure out. It's a big sacrifice when you're used to running an offense, when you're used to knowing where your shots are going to come. We're so used to dictating games and manipulating games with the ball in our hands. We've got to figure out how to do it now without the ball and how to help your teammates without the ball.”

What George said is fairly obvious to most basketball enthusiasts, but it is still interesting to see him acknowledge the issues that these three stars are facing.

Even when Westbrook was playing alongside Kevin Durant, many in the media criticized him for his unwillingness to share the ball—and now he has two stars to feed. Many point to his drop in usage rate as compared to last season (41.7 to 34.3) as proof that Westbrook is sacrificing looks for his new teammates, but we should also consider that his career usage rate when Durant was on the team (31.3) is still significantly below what he has posted so far this season. In fact, Westbrook currently has the second-highest usage rate in the NBA, while George (25.2) and Anthony (24.7) aren't even sniffing the top 20.

Of course, Westbrook's ball dominance is not an excuse for George and Anthony to lazily sit at the three-point line whenever their point guard has the ball. Everyone needs to remain active, making cuts, setting screens, and being ready to take an open shot or hit an open man. Willing as George and Anthony may be to defer some of their typical usage to others, however, off-ball play is not something that just anybody can excel at when he decides to. We praise players like Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick—and even some superstars like Stephen Curry—for their ability to move without the ball because it is a detailed skill that is difficult to master. As of now, George and Anthony don't seem to have that skill in their repertoires.

Some may ask about Anthony's time playing off the ball with Team USA over the years. Yes, Anthony was willing to be more of an off-ball lurker with Team USA and excelled at it, but dropping 37 on Nigeria in a game that ended 156-73 isn't exactly the same roughing it against NBA opponents.

The fact of the matter is that the Thunder have so far appeared to be exactly what the critics of their offseason moves expected: a team of ball-stoppers who stagnate the offense and force the team to take a lot of difficult shots. The numbers very clearly indicate that the team's best players are playing a different style of basketball this season, forcing up more jumpers and getting less looks at the rim, and it all goes back to ball movement and offensive flow.

This could end up serving as a warning to teams that are looking to assemble a collection of superstars. Just because a few ultra-talented players are productive does not mean that they will be productive as a unit. It makes you wonder: Did the Warriors, Heat, Rockets, and other teams that assembled talent that seemed a strange fit on paper truly believe that their new players would mesh, or did they blindly throw talent together and hope that it would click? The only people who may ever know are the executives of those teams making calls behind the scenes. But in the case of the Thunder, it seems like the past offseason was a blind talent grab. The team was grasping at straws in an attempt to avoid wasting Westbrook's prime years, and it doesn't seem like the desperation will pay off.

Of course, it's a long season. The Thunder can get above .500 with a win against the Utah Jazz tonight.